Being the editor of a classics list is not quite the same as being the editor of a list publishing contemporary books. As well as keeping the wonderful VMC backlist rejuvenated, I am always on the lookout for lost gems. Only, instead of being sent hoards of submissions by literary agents, I usually have to discover books in other ways. The Virago Modern Classics list is very collaborative – titles are often recommended either by authors, colleagues or by our readers who contact us with suggestions. That has been the case ever since the list began. I think of my job as a little like being a literary detective: I keep my ear to the ground for authors or books that are out of print but well regarded, then I have to find the book. Once read, if I think it will be enjoyed by a modern audience and successfully published by us, I attempt to track down the author, agent or estate to find out who holds the rights. So there is a fair amount of sleuthing involved, both before and after the book is read.
Whether adding a ‘new’ book to the list or reissuing a title from the backlist, I spend a lot of time considering who might be the perfect match to introduce the work, as that can be a very effective way of relaunching the book. A reader might not have heard of Elizabeth Taylor or Mary McCarthy, but if a popular author like Sarah Waters or Candace Bushnell writes the introduction, it serves as a great personal recommendation. For example, The Group seemed to me to have many comparisons to Sex and the City, but I didn’t realise it was one of Candace Bushnell’s favourite books, and indeed the inspiration for her most famous novel, until I invited her to write the introduction.
Other recent successes have included Barbara Pym, whose modern champions have included Alexander McCall Smith and Jilly Cooper, both of whom have contributed new introductions; and Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table (introduced by Jane Campion, who made it into an acclaimed film), which Hilary Mantel hailed as ‘one of the classics of autobiography’. Muriel Spark, a dark, comic genius, has also joined the list in the last few years (her introducers include Ali Smith and Ian Rankin – who would have thought he wrote his PhD thesis on her?).
Apart from the detective work, my role is much like that of any other editor – negotiating an advance, making an offer, working with the design team to create the right cover, liaising with the publicity and sales departments, etc. It is the act of discovering ‘lost’ books and giving them a new life that makes my job feel unique.
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